Last night, the hysterically hyped interview with President Hollande aired on national television. It was followed by an evening of commentary and debate. Whilst Hollande had not made a major television appearance since his press conference of 13 November 2012, which was largely hailed as successful, he has not been absent from the media. Some outlets recalled that he has made five major appearances now since his election in May 2012. Add to that numerous speeches visits and quick answers to journalists, he has scarcely been absent from the evening news.
Yet the grandiose and revered role of the French head of state, both monarch and head of the executive, means that only the most stunning intervention by the head of state will meet the expectations of the press and the people, and last night, by most accounts, the President failed to make a mark.
Substance, Not Style
Dealing with the substance of what he said, Hollande laid out, for what seemed the umpteenth time, his basic employment policies, including subsidized employment contracts for young unqualified workers, “generational” contracts that subsidize taking on young workers and retaining older works, and the tax credit for employment. All of these measures have been voted, but the latter two are slow to be implemented and the President promised they would be ramped up.
These measures, each having been criticized vehemently by the opposition for either being ineffective (frankly it is too early to judge) or unnecessarily complex (a fair comment that fails to disguise that the opposition proposed something similar, if simpler, prior to the election, and now they seem to disagree with the basis of the proposal as well as its implementation). Hollande then let forth the comment that the opposition have seized on as an admission of his inability to improve the situation: “all of the tools are in place“. Whilst he was probably seeking to show that he has been busy putting in place measures, when they have failed to take effect, it appears to many that they have been for naught. This phrase, if things do not work out, will hang like an albatross around his neck.
Several new measures were announced during the interview. Hollande confirmed what many have suspected on pensions: that the period for which workers contribute to the state pension scheme will have to increase to rebalance the system. He also confirmed that family welfare benefits would need to be reduced for the highest earners. He also announced that there would be a “simplification shock” for legislation regulating small businesses. The opposition pointed out that governments often say that, and do nothing (ironically, their’s did much the same, and yet limited it to single person businesses). Finally, the old technique of releasing profit sharing accounts, normally blocked for five years, for employees in private businesses, was deployed by Hollande, seeking to stimulate consumer spending. Whilst welcome for those who have such accounts (such as your author), the previous experience of this measure in 2004 and 2008 shows that it makes little difference to spending, as consumers are likely to either pay down debts or save the money instead.
Aside from the economy, the interview left a little time to talk about defense (a somber moment talking about hostages, and the news that the defense budget will not be subject to cuts next year), equal marriage (Hollande won’t budge, but he left open artificial insemination for lesbian couples and confirmed he was opposed to surrogacy), and tax policy (taxes will not rise in 2014, he said, confirming the fiscal stability already announced by the government).
Style Not Substance
Let’s turn to the style of the interview. Some commentators have derided such weighty issues as the set, the chair and the lighting. Perhaps our time is better spent talking about the President himself, rather than the hideous plank of cheap chipboard that separated him from David Pujadas.
Commentators generally agree that Hollande came across as intelligent, knowledgeable and human, an achievement for an American politician perhaps, but not enough for the French who are demanding to know when the crisis will end and unemployment fall. Hollande however seems to be suggesting that the crisis will largely sort itself out with limited intervention by the government. This is the same bet made by the Conservative government in Britain – a bet they seem to be losing. It may be right that in France, with the measures in place to give greater flexibility to business in terms of employment law, and the tax credit for employment, time will heal the economy and by the end of the year, unemployment will begin to tick down. Few statisticians are willing to predict that, and French economic performance depends on the wider European economy much more than the public seems willing to realize.
The Elysée palace derided commentators looking for quick and easy answers in last night’s interview, saying that this interview was the beginning of a sequence of events and announcements. And yet saying more is unlikely to change the overall impression of Hollande and his government: with opinion so low of him, anything that Hollande says at the moment is derided by a large chunk of the public. The same speech by a popular politician would be heard. His inaudibility is most clearly demonstrated by the low expectations that the public has of him. Hollande is no stranger to low expectations – they dogged him throughout the campaign for the Socialist primaries and the Presidential election. Mali was an opportunity for him to – briefly – shake off the specter of slight bumbling incompetence, but it has reattached itself in the minds of many of the public and a large and influential chunk of the media.
But as Hollande triumphed in May 2012, again, he could bring the economy round, with a mix of careful nudging and the natural cycle of growth that might kick in. If it doesn’t he loses. And brings down the Socialists with him. But if he does, he will have helped a recovery without turning the country upside down. No mean feat in a country that fundamentally does not want to be turned upside down. If only they would admit it.